From: Yale Environment 360
Published September 6, 2017 10:59 AM

Unnatural Surveillance: How Online Data Is Putting Species at Risk

In the arid far-western region of South Africa is a vast flatland covered with white quartzite gravel known as the Knersvlakte – Afrikaans for “Gnashing Plain” – because it sounds like grinding teeth when you walk across it. It’s a good place to watch unpeopled horizons vanish into ripples of heat haze, but to appreciate its real value you must get down on your knees. The Knersvlakte holds about 1,500 species of plants, including 190 species found nowhere else on earth and 155 that are Red-Listed by conservation biologists as threatened with extinction. To protect them, 211,000 acres have been set aside as the Knersvlakte Nature Reserve.

Melita Weideman, then a Knersvlakte ranger, had just finished work one July afternoon in 2015 when she was called to check out a mysterious pickup truck parked just outside the reserve. Weideman saw a man and woman walking through the approaching winter sunset toward the vehicle and then noticed empty cardboard boxes on the double-cab’s back seat. “That’s very weird,” she recalls thinking. “It looks like they’re collecting things.”

The couple had no reserve entry permits. When Weideman asked to see inside their backpacks, they initially refused. “It was quite a stressful situation because we [rangers] are not armed, and I didn’t know if they were armed.” But Weideman persisted and the bags were opened, revealing 49 of the the small, cryptic succulent plants that grow between the Knersvlakte’s stones. Jose (aka Josep) Maria Aurell Cardona and his wife Maria Jose Gonzalez Puicarbo, both Spanish citizens, were arrested. A search of their guesthouse room in a nearby town revealed 14 large boxes containing over 2,000 succulents, including hundreds of specimens of threatened and protected species, courier receipts showing that many more had already been sent to Spain, and notes documenting their extensive collecting trips across South Africa and neighboring Namibia.

Continue reading at Yale Environment 360

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